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Understanding British diaspora communities adds an important frame of reference for Brexit

People migrating to new countries are always faced with the challenge of settling and building a new life in an unfamiliar land. Professor Tanja Bueltmann has been researching English and Scottish migrant communities based in locations throughout the world. The research has opened wider debates about British emigration and how history should recognise these internationally dispersed groups, while also adding an important frame of reference for Brexit.

Professor Bueltmann, a Professor in History at Northumbria University has been researching themes relating to historical diasporas. Diasporas refers to the ‘spread of people from an original homeland’ and the research specifically focusses on Scottish and English communities situated all over the world. It also explores how original migrants and their descendants settled, formed groups, built communities and thrived commercially following their arrival.

Professor Bueltmann’s work includes studying the role of ethnic networks and community centres as social hubs. These facilities have provided a critical anchor to homeland culture, serving to maintain memories and traditional culture, while acting as a vital meeting place for immigrants as they adapt to their new homes and surroundings.

In many cases, they also serve a much wider social function. In the US, for example, some English and Scottish groups have essentially operated as life/health insurance companies, offering fellow migrants a means to look after themselves and their families at a time when there was little state support.

This area of research is becoming increasingly important particularly because of its relationship to modern questions of identity. Migration is a prominent topic in the UK at present – partly because the UK has never fully recognised its own outward migration history. Professor Bueltmann’s research is, therefore, being used to inform wider debates on current issues and enable UK cultural organisations to enhance how they address and present migration history.

A significant impact has been informing work at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. An ongoing collaboration with its curators will yield a far broader acknowledgement of Scottish communities abroad, while providing fascinating chapters of migrant history for the many thousands of people who visit the museum every year.

Changing perceptions at the museum has also continued through a series of engagement events with the public and school children. Professor Bueltmann co-led the workshop, ‘Trading Places: Exploring Scotland’s commercial diaspora, past and present’. The occasion brought together historians who specialise in the movement of people and provided visitors with new ways of viewing Scottish migration through the ages. By raising awareness of under-acknowledged passages of migrant history, the occasion has sparked interest among visitors about their own family connections to diaspora communities.

Professor Bueltmann uses her experience on the project to comment on broader migration questions, and her knowledge of outgoing British communities provides context as debates on Brexit unfold.

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